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Education Secretary Duncan: HBCUs as Relevant Today as Ever

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made his first official visit to Howard University Thursday to discuss the role historically Black colleges and universities must continue to play in preparing teachers to educate the nation’s increasingly diverse student body.

The visit to the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science (MS)2 came on the heels of a promise Duncan made earlier this month on the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show to visit a few of the nation’s HBCUs.

Joined by radio host Tom Joyner and Howard’s president, Dr. Sidney Ribeau, Duncan saw the highly trained middle school teachers and students in action. Launched in 2005, the middle school offers a rigorous curriculum to prepare students, many from low-income backgrounds, for careers in math, science and engineering.

HBCUs have a huge role to play in developing the teachers for the next generation, said Duncan. “Once students get into college, HBCUs have a unique ability to nurture and provide support to students who may need some extra help. Seeing Howard’s commitment, not just at the higher education level but at the middle school level, is phenomenal.”

Avery Coffey, a seventh-grade student and two-time regional spelling bee winner, greeted Duncan at the school’s entrance. When asked by Duncan what career he plans to pursue after high school, Coffey responded enthusiastically, “I want to be a mathematician.”

Ronald Blakely, deputy director for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, was heartened by Duncan’s visit to Howard University so early in his appointment.

“It speaks volumes to his commitment to higher education,” Blakely said.

“It’s all about making sure that HBCUs and other institutions get what they need.”

Improving teacher quality is a high priority for the Obama administration, Duncan said. And with funding from the Tom Joyner Foundation, Howard University’s School of Education is also working to improve learning outcomes by cultivating highly trained teachers like Kimberly Worthy.

Worthy, who teaches seventh-grade social studies at the Howard middle school, was named Washington, D.C., teacher of the year by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

The National Education Association, in partnership with the Tom Joyner Foundation, offers financial and professional development assistance to help teachers like Worthy who are working under provisional certification to gain full licensure.

“Because of Mr. Joyner, his support for HBCUs and the grant that we received from his foundation, we were able to get the secretary to our middle school and observe the teachers that are being funded by the program,” Ribeau said.

The beleaguered economy has hit HBCUs hard. Earlier this month, Clark Atlanta University announced it was laying off 70 faculty and 30 staff members. Neighboring institution Spelman College eliminated 35 staff positions, The New York Times reported. Stillman College in Alabama reported campus-wide salary reductions and furloughs.

“It is tough for us also,” said Ribeau. “We have freezes on all of our positions. We are cutting back overtime and travel and considering temporary furloughs.”

The financial hurdles confronting HBCUs “are a real concern,” Duncan said.

“HBCUs cannot simply survive. They have to thrive. The historical importance of these schools cannot be overstated. Their relevance today is as great as any time in the past,” said Duncan. “We want to dramatically increase access and opportunity. So, in the new budget, we are significantly increasing Pell Grants, Perkins loans. We are announcing billions of dollars in new scholarship and loan opportunities to ensure that those students who want to go to school are not going to have financial stress stand in the way of that.”

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